What happens when a psychologist gets to decide your child’s future?
I married Amanda* in my second year of dental school, hoping to become an endodontist—a root canal specialist. She was in her third year of university, studying to become a psychologist. We were both from assimilated families who had lived in the US for generations. Religion played no part in our childhood, and we had no intention of it having any bearing on our future lives.
Our beautiful daughter, Margie, was born several years later, when we were both established in our careers. Amanda is a real Type-A personality, driven and persistent. There was no way a needy, helpless infant was going to derail her career, or get in the way of her life. She took two weeks of maternity leave and then hired a full-time nanny from a reputable agency so she could go back to her practice. I urged her to take a little more time, just to relax and bond with the baby, but Amanda refused. She had no patience for the nitty-gritty of parenthood; late-night feedings and diaper changes wore her out, and, in her own words, she “didn’t do baby talk.” She loved our daughter in her own way, but she left most of the grunt work to the hired help. I cut down my hours at my dental practice to spend some time with my precious daughter, because I felt she needed at least one parent involved in her life.
Thankfully, Margie was born with a sweet, good-natured personality, and seemed to thrive, even with a mostly absent mother. On weekends, I took her on long drives, spent hours singing to her and telling her silly stories, forming a bond that would continue to grow throughout her childhood. Amanda called her a “Daddy’s girl,” and claimed she had me wrapped around her pinky, which was true.
When Margie was four years old, we let the nanny go and registered her in pre-kindergarten. I wanted to send her to the public pre-K near our home, but Amanda refused. “Do you really want Margie to come home with drugs and guns?” she asked scornfully.
“Drugs? Guns? C’mon. She’s barely four,” I retorted, but Amanda’s mind was made up.
Ironically, the only private kindergarten in the neighborhood was an Orthodox day school, which was said to have a stellar curriculum and exceptional teachers. The longer day and art classes were what sealed the deal. Amanda didn’t like the Orthodox any more than I did, but the school served her needs, which was getting Margie an excellent education, and keeping her occupied for most of the day.
We registered Margie in September of 1998, not dreaming that this would be the start of an experience that would destroy our family and transform our lives.
As I mentioned earlier, Amanda was a Type-A workaholic; she had emergency hours on weekends as well. This meant that Margie and I, who worked more traditional hours, spent a chunk of our weekend together. One Friday night in early September Margie looked outside and noticed it was nearly dark. She gasped and asked for Shabbat candles.
“Shabbat candles? What for?” I asked, confused.
“Morah says that on Friday night, before it gets dark, we light Shabbat candles to welcome the Shabbat queen. It’s almost nighttime. We have to light the candles!”
“Maybe your teacher does that, but we don’t keep Shabbat in our family,” I said, as matter of fact as possible.
Margie had a royal temper tantrum, kicking and screaming, until I was forced to give in. I found two tea lights and helped her light the Shabbat candles. But that was only the beginning. Before I knew it, she was insisting I make the blessing over a cup of wine, and that we eat a traditional Friday night meal. I humored her, thinking it was a passing phase that she’d get over soon enough.
But it only got worse. Margie brought home a cardboard horn for the High Holy Days, and proceeded to blow it, producing the most horrendous noises, for hours. On Sukkot she insisted that I take her to visit her teacher, whom she called Morah, who was hosting a class party in her backyard booth. I met the other parents there, most of whom were religious, or religious-lite. I was the only Dad there without his wife, and the only one who wasn’t wearing a kippah. Margie’s teacher, Sherry, couldn’t stop praising our adorable, brilliant girl, and predicted that she’d go far.
I came home from the event feeling confused and unsettled. I had always been content with my life as an upper-class secular Jew with a successful career; I never had any existential questions about the meaning of life, and if I did, I resolutely pushed it away. My family had never celebrated anything—no Pesach Seder or Chanukah lights, and certainly no Xmas tree. The only thing that had mattered was material success, mingling with the right crowd and enjoying the good life. We lived in a spacious home with a swimming pool, had a timeshare in Aspen and a condo in Boca. Life was busy and filled with new experiences—places to travel, friends to meet, parties to attend.